Two recent posts here have been about the role of trust in the environmental debate. Briefly, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot seem to expect everybody to share their trust in scientific authority, yet not so long ago, they were themselves suspicious of it. It was the obedient slave of big business, they said. Now they and anti-nuclear environmentalists are busy calling each other ‘deniers’, while claiming to be speaking ‘for science’. What arguments that make this kind of appeal to scientific authority seem not to understand is that a relationship of trust is a pre-condition of scientific authority. You can’t have any kind of authority without some kind of relationship of trust; it’s like trying to have a party without beer, music, food and friends. So Lynas and Monbiot’s claims to speak for science merely bounce off their anti-nuclear opponents: ‘you’re repeating nuclear industry propaganda’, they claim — exactly the argument Lynas and Monbiot have been using all these years against their own adversaries in institutional science. Those claiming to be speaking for science are too easily identified as speaking for something else.
Elsewhere in the debate, the question ‘in whom do we trust’ rings just as loudly…
Roger Pielke Jr had a funny post recently, about angry liberal science-warrior, Chris Mooney. Here it is in full:
Chris Mooney explains the biological mechanisms that have led experts to be able to protect their minds against the corrosive effects of ideology and politics:
I’m not saying anyone is capable of being 100 percent unbiased but I am saying that scientists evaluate scientific claims, and also claims about expertise, using the norms of their profession, precisely because they have neural circuits for doing so laid down by many years of experience. Which the other groups don’t have.
So when it is revealed that many scientists have partisan and ideological leanings this is not a function of their biases, but rather a reflection of truth. This is quite different than arguing that “Liberals have a reality bias.” You can follow the logic from there.
Pielke gives Mooney’s statement the terse attention it deserves. Nonetheless, Mooney reveals many of the problem with the seemingly science-centric perspective.
The quote is from the discussion underneath an article on the Discover magazine blog in which Mooney continues his defensive manoeuvres against the ‘Rebublican War on Science‘ (i.e. calling those who don’t see the climate debate the way he does ‘contrarians’, i.e. denier-light). The issue there apparently relates to the question of the Bush administration’s interference in science. Mooney cites surveys of scientists, which seem to reveal that most scientists — including a majority of scientists who identify as ‘conservative’ — do believe that the Bush Administration interfered more in science than previous governments had. Leaving aside the questions about whether or not this is true, one way of explaining it if it is true is that science has never been so politicised. And the likes of Mooney only really have themselves to blame for that. After all, it’s Mooney’s desire that what ‘science says’ ought to determine the most far-reaching political reorganisation of the world in its history. The claim that ‘climate change is happening’, and that ‘science says’ so are almost always the prologue to a story about how the world needs a radical reorganisation, to save it from climate change. Seeking legitimacy for political ideas in science is what politicises — ‘interferes with’ — science.
It is in the comments under the article, however, in which Mooney makes his claims about truth-determining biological mechanisms.
… what I don’t accept is the validity of the comparisons between scientists, evangelicals, and Tea Partiers *with respect to* how they think about scientific topics in particular (which are the topics that are of course at issue here). I’m not saying anyone is capable of being 100 percent unbiased but I am saying that scientists evaluate scientific claims, and also claims about expertise, using the norms of their profession, precisely because they have neural circuits for doing so laid down by many years of experience. Which the other groups don’t have.
Leaving aside the stuff about ‘neural circuits’ for a moment, it’s interesting that Mooney pitches Tea-Partiers against scientists. The omission of all those countless non-scientist climate change activists (i.e. loud and angry liberal journalists with an English Major from Yale University) certainly reflects his own prejudices. So in what respect is the Yale graduate in English competent to speak about the development of ‘neural circuits’ amongst his own layperson peers in the Tea Party, and their competence to speak about ‘scientific topics in particular’, versus scientists? Chris Mooney obviously believes himself competent to speak about ‘scientific topics in particular’. He even feels competent to make a claim about other people’s ‘neural circuits’ being insufficiently developed to allow the expression of thoughts about ‘scientific topics in particular’. Is it only people he disagrees with that lack mental hardware?
A commenter on Mark Lynas’s blog — the one discussed in the previous post here — suggests reading another of Mooney’s recent articles which claims to present ‘The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science‘.
“A MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger(PDF), in a passage that might have been referring to climate change denial—the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes. But it was too early for that—this was the 1950s—and Festinger was actually describing a famous case study in psychology.
According to Mooney, ‘our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link’. That is to say that neural circuits develop in the layperson such that he or she is predisposed to seek out facts which confirm existing belief, and to reject those which contradict them. Scientists, of course, seem to have better overcome this legacy of our evolutionary psychology.
Prior-ness is something discussed at length on this blog. The argument here is that much politics is prior to the science in the environmentalist’s argument. In order to believe the arguments that environmentalists in general have made, we have to presuppose that society’s sensitivity to climate is equivalent to the climate system’s sensitivity to CO2. I believe that this must be the case, because the fact of CO2 being a greenhouse gas isn’t something that by itself would cause us any alarm. It is the Nth-order consequences of climate change that tell us what kind of problem climate change is. When we try to work out what those are, I believe, we discover that what determines our sensitivity to climate is not the magnitude of the climatic phenomenon, but rather the extent to which we are able to organise protection for ourselves: wealth. Thus, in order to establish an equivalence of sensitivity of society to climate and sensitivity of climate to CO2, we must presuppose that we are not able to organise ourselves against the elements, changing or not. Climate change may well be a problem, but it may be a trivial one. The environmentalist typically answers with recourse to the precautionary principle, or to wildly exaggerate the magnitude of the problem, rather than to science.
Mooney’s priorness is something different, however. His argument is that something approximate to ‘ideology’ exists prior to the treatment of any new facts — especially scientific facts — that causes some kind of defensiveness, especially in those of a conservative mindset. That is to say that conservatives are ‘ideological’, whereas liberals more often express a tendency towards an ‘objective’ treatment of the evidence.
The short answer to Mooney here is that, if the putative Liberal/Left appears to be less-‘ideologically-driven’ than the Right, it is because it is that much more hollow. This is not a defence of conservatism (I am not a conservative), it’s merely a fact that we can see the disintegration of the Left in general over the course of the C20th. It has sought legitimacy for its ideas not amongst the public, but in the scientific academy. Meanwhile, it seems obvious enough that a more coherent ‘ideology’, and concomitant views on social organisation might mediate the impact of seemingly self-evident ‘facts’. That is to say that a conservative might just be less terrified by climate change than a ‘liberal’ because the conservative puts more emphasis on wealth. The liberal/Left, however, has emphasised wealth less and less as it conceded to capitalism.
Putting the last few paragraphs together then, it is possible that the exhausted liberal/left cannot conceive of a means to produce wealth, and thus descends to a naturalistic/deterministic view of the world in which humans are therefore vulnerable to climate. They make an equivalence of sensitivity of society to climate and sensitivity of climate to CO2. Conservatives, meanwhile, seem to better understand that humans actively produce wealth to improve their circumstances. Thus the order of change we can anticipate is far less of a problem in their perspective. Mooney likes to pretend that the way his fellow liberals see the same scientific argument is objective, and unfiltered by their own ‘ideological’ prejudices. But clearly we can see that seemingly value-free scientific judgements can be interpreted different ways in the cases of the hypothetical conservative and the hypothetical liberal. As pointed out here a lot, liberals such as Mooney just don’t recognise their own perspective as ideological. He believes that he just ‘reads off’ instructions to the world from ‘science’.
A caveat… there is a problem with the schema illustrated here, it borrows Mooney’s categories. I don’t think left and right and conservative and liberal are as rough-and-ready terms as we’d like them to be. Left and right are almost entirely redundant categories, and ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ only give nominative identity to contemporary political ideas. There is plenty of conservative thought embedded in environmentalism. And there is plenty of liberal thought amongst many a conservative. One thing we can say, however, is that there is no reason why a scientist wouldn’t be vulnerable to the political, ‘ideological’ presupposition of environmental determinism that the likes of Mooney seem to suffer.
In that case, we can say that it’s not necessarily a problem that Mooney’s scientists start from a political premise before projecting into the future to depict some terrifying Thermageddon. The problem is that he and they forget what they have presupposed, thus their forgotten political premise appears as a conclusion of climate science.
However, Mooney’s story is about more than climate change. He promises to tell us also why ‘our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link’.
As attractive and elegant as evolutionary accounts of why some humans seemingly refuse to believe in concrete fact are, they are at best premature, and preclude the a far more straightforward explanation of different perspectives.
Dealing with the easy one first, the MMR-autism link may be better explained by the issue discussed in the previous posts: trust. Put simply, suspicion of the MMR vaccine thrived in an atmosphere in which modern medicine has not enjoyed the trust invested in it by previous generations. If you want to know why people don’t ‘accept the truth’ of MMR’s safety, read the conspiracy theories that are the background to the phenomenon. That’s not to say that ‘Big Pharma’ has never tried to cover up its mistakes, nor even that it never sought to maximise its profits at the expense of both the ill, and not at all ill. The point being that the MMR scare, much as the climate debate, represents the intersection of a number of phenomena: suspicion of large companies and their influence, a loss of faith in the benefits of industrial society and in modernity, and the quasi-mystical elevation of the ‘natural’ over the synthetic. The degradation of trust between individuals and the institutions that might have been turned to for guidance happened prior to the emergence of the MMR scare. There is little point, in such an atmosphere, screaming about science: many people simply don’t trust it any more. Many people no longer think that the institution of medicine is about making people better, but merely about exerting control. They believe that potions and herbs can offer more than the latest scientific breakthrough, not because their neural circuits are insufficiently developed, but because the trust that really should exist between doctor and patient often simply doesn’t. The putative authenticity of ‘traditional’ medicine speaks about a broader phenomenon in which scientific, public and official institutions are seen as interested in a given outcome, much as Mooney believes individuals treat ‘facts’ according to the outcome pre-determined by their ideological perspective.
The breakdown of trust is comprehensive. It’s not simply that medicine is held in less esteem now than previously. In previous eras of optimism — even those which belied deep geopolitical conflict — scientific progress was visibly associated with a positive transformation of living standards, and a more rewarding experience of life in general. Again, it’s too easy to paint a picture of a golden era, so the point here is not to hark back to the postwar period, but to point out a transformation in the relationship between politics, science, and the public. Science these days preaches instead the virtues of austerity where it used to promise abundance. Put crudely, the difference is between a politics founded on promise on the one hand and a threat on the other. “Vote for us and we will…” versus “vote for us or the polar bear drowns”.
There has been a tendency to overstate the Left-Right dimensions in this debate. But, as much as Mooney protests otherwise, there are no straight lines that correspond either to neurology or political theory. This week, for instance Jeremy Grantham — the backer of the Grantham Institute of the LSE, home of Bob May and Nicholas Stern — proclaimed that it is “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources andFalling Prices Are Over Forever“.
The purpose of this, my second (and much longer) piece on resource limitations, is to persuade investors with an interest in the long term to change their whole frame of reference: to recognize that we now live in different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common.
It is intensely irritating when the mega-rich lecture the rest of the world on its oh-so profligate ways. But the real issue here is that when men who command $hundreds of billions of capital express such a lack of confidence in capitalism, the putative political right has a problem. If (some) capitalists have lost faith in capitalism’s ability to produce increasing quantities of produce at decreasing costs, what is capitalism good for, as far as the man-in-the-street concerned? Why should he trust it, if the fabulously wealthy can only see dearth at the end of the tunnel? And why should he trust its institutions: banks, international trade agreements, government departments, contracts… and so on? Many who might identify with the Right may protest that Grantham is no capitalist, yet he is no socialist; his criticism is not of capital as such — he’s not seeking to abolish private property or dismantle capitalism — but an apology for it in an era (so he claims) of increasing scarcity. Reinventing Malthus, Grantham warns that ‘if we mean to avoid increased starvation and international instability, we will need global ingenuity and generosity on a scale hitherto unheard of’, before promising to return to offer ‘shorter-term views on the market and investment recommendations’. The end is nigh, but there’s plenty of opportunity to increase the value of your portfolio.
Grantham’s millennial anxiety reflects the failure of his own imagination. Like the Malthus he reinvents, he can not see what he has brought to the data which apparently tells him that the abundance produced throughout the era spanning the industrial revolution to the present is some kind of gift from nature. Divine providence. Capitalism doesn’t unleash human creative potential on this view; it merely digs stuff out of the ground and shifts it to where it is needed. It is this bleak outlook which is prior to the science. Grantham sees a ‘different, more constrained, world’, but isn’t it him that’s different, and constrained?
Creationism is perhaps a harder beast to understand. The noisy fight between angry atheists and creationists in recent years has been deathly boring. But again, if this is truly a debate between liberals and conservatives, all it reveals is the hollowness of either agenda. It seems obvious that there is a vast excluded middle in the debate, which neither side has been able to rally, much as the climate debate consists — apparently — of eco-warriors on the one hand and deniers on the other, while a great number of people are not really all that interested.
The angry atheists imagine some resurgence of religiousness, but a better account of the apparent rise of politicised religion is, again, a collapse of trust in secular public institutions. It is as if, so to speak, the likes of Richard Dawkins are fighting their own failures. They imagine the rebirth of a kind of medieval Catholicism, but this seems to forget that contemporary creationism expresses itself, not as the literal word of the bible, but in terms of ‘Intelligent Design’ — there is scientific evidence, claim today’s creationists, of God’s role in the development of organisms. Mirroring this concession to science, the evolutionists have invented their own creation myth from which they draw moral authority. The Darwinian account of evolution is for them more than simply an explanation of the Origin of Species, it is an encompassing, universal narrative that even explains why the stupid people who don’t believe the things you tell them stupidly don’t believe the things you tell them. Religious zealots and bigots past explained non-conformist’s disobedience as heresy and sin; those claiming to be the rightful heirs of the enlightenment put such intransigence down to insufficiently developed neural circuits — the legacy of evolutionary psychology, that only the enlightened and anointed have overcome. We might as well call ‘denial’, ‘original sin’, then.
Where the loss of faith in capitalism represents a problem for the putative right, the failure of secular public institutions to sustain, let alone engender, trust in them creates a problem for seemingly progressive liberals. Much of the argument offered by today’s secularists — and even by today’s theists — descends to science. Ethical, moral, political, and economic problems are seemingly answered by appeals to the ‘best available evidence’. Evidence-based policy-making is the order of the day. Thus we see policy-based evidence-making in place of transparent debate: politics reduced to technical process of management of public affairs in which public debate is precluded, and the contest between competing values, principles and objectives — that might have once been brought to bear over decision-making processes — surrendered to bogus spreadsheets weighted to pre-determined outcomes. Progressive movements matched the right’s loss of faith in capitalism with their own loss of faith in their ability to make moral and political arguments that appealed to a public consisting of engaged individuals, competent to understand their own interests. The greater good, it seems, was better served by self-justifying political elites than by the hoi-polloi themselves, after all.
Two things stick out from Mooney’s article. The first is this:
Modern science originated from an attempt to weed out such subjective lapses—what that great 17th century theorist of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, dubbed the “idols of the mind.” Even if individual researchers are prone to falling in love with their own theories, the broader processes of peer review and institutionalized skepticism are designed to ensure that, eventually, the best ideas prevail.
The point Mooney wants to make on Bacon’s behalf is that human faculties are prone to error. I.e. it is a condition of subjectivity that it has only an incomplete picture of the world; i.e. a perspective. Some of this we must agree with. After all, the point emphasised above is that the politics is prior to the science; Grantham, for instance, sees in the data reasons to be cheerless, but they are his own prejudices and failure of imagination looking back at him.
Remarkably, Mooney emphasises not simply the scientific method, but the institutional apparatus of scientific practice as its extension as the means to ruling out the subjective influences that may beset a ‘value-free investigation’. ‘Institutionalized skepticism’ (or ‘institutionalised scepticism’, this side of the Atlantic) serves as the filter of bad ideas, presumably by operating according to the principles that Bacon — and philosophers of science since — have laid down, but not merely those principles. Scientific authority, in other words, comes by virtue of some form of social organisation: institutional science. Mooney’s conception of scientific authority begins to look a lot more political now.
This blog has emphasised that there is a difference between science as a process and institutional science. It’s important to note, again, that creationists, MMR-autism campaigners, climate change ‘deniers’, and all the other objects of Mooney’s criticism, do very little to attack science as such — as a process. Indeed, they can all be found, right or wrong, making appeals to science. Mooney protests that science is under attack, and that the Republican Party, during Bush’s administration, had even launched a ‘war’ against it. But as we can see, there is no war on ‘science’ as a process; so many of the putative anti-scientists make appeals to scientific evidence.
The best sense that can be made of Mooney’s claims that there was a ‘war on science’ and that there is a ‘science’ of ‘why we don’t believe the science’, is that there is a ‘war on institutional science’ and that there’s a ‘science’ of ‘why we don’t believe the institutional science’. This much has been answered above. There is no coincidence that the alleged ‘war on science’ happened during an era in which (institutional) science was so politicised, by, as much as anything, the vacuity of the liberal/progressive movement’s agenda. And Mooney has done more to politicise science than most other people. Second, the scientific method no more obliges people to trust institutional science than the literal word of the bible obliges people to believe that the church itself is incapable of doing wrong. To make the point more explicit: there is a difference between trust in the scientific method and trust in the scientific institution.
Our individual responses to the conclusions that science reaches, however, are quite another matter. Ironically, in part because researchers employ so much nuance and strive to disclose all remaining sources of uncertainty, scientific evidence is highly susceptible to selective reading and misinterpretation. Giving ideologues or partisans scientific data that’s relevant to their beliefs is like unleashing them in the motivated-reasoning equivalent of a candy store.
Irony indeed. Fancy letting ideologues and partisans near literature that they don’t understand! They might turn out some cod-science about how the people they have a political disagreement with have insufficiently developed ‘neural circuits’, having failed to overcome their primitive psychology!
The second thing that sticks out from the article is the illustration that seems to reflect Mooney’s perspective:
In this picture, ‘belief’ is depicted as an poor approximation of ‘truth’. That is to say that mental models of the material world are imprecise, and prone to error, reflecting Mooney’s comments that subjectivity is flawed, and that the scientific method — and scientific institutions — aims to ‘weed it out’. The implication of this and Mooney’s concerns about letting ‘ideologues’ near ‘scientific data’ is that ‘truth’ is something which only institutional science has access to, and it that becomes corrupted in the hands of the ‘partisan’. But truth is not a property of the material, ‘objective’ world; it is a judgement about statements, or beliefs. It does not exist ‘out there’.
This metaphysical confusion runs throughout Mooney’s argument. For Mooney, ‘ideology’ is some insidious, toxic force, the antithesis to ‘truth’ itself. The thrust of his argument is that we need particular scientific institutions to ameliorate this intrinsic weakness of human nature. And as such, these institutions deserve elevated status above the reach of those prone to ideology. Otherwise, we would tend towards creationism, to MMR-scares, to climate-change denial. In other words, our flawed minds would create a catastrophe, and it is this possibility of catastrophe that seemingly legitimises the elevated position of scientific institutions. Mooney reinvents Plato’s city state administrated by Philosopher Kings, the main differences being that Mooney conceives of a global polity, and the wisdom of the Guardians only produces the possibility of mere survival, not even a better way of life. To bring this back the matter of trust, Mooney doesn’t trust humans. Their minds are flawed. Their ambitions and ideas are mere fictions. The institutions they create are accordingly founded on false premises, which, instituted and acted upon, will cause disaster. Even when humans are exposed to ‘the truth’, it is, on Mooney’s view, absorbed into the poisonous, ideological programmes of partisans: liars and cheats who distort it. But without a disaster looming, this instance of a politics of fear would collapse.
The desire for a stable climate and a stable relationship between society and the ‘biosphere’ is an unstated desire for a stable society without of the means to build it. It is a politics by other means. Mooney’s cynicism towards his fellow humans forces the business of politics away from the public sphere that he otherwise has no chance of influencing, into some imagined, purely objective realm. But this realm does not exist. His scepticism of ‘ideology’ and ‘partisanship’ and his emphasis on ‘science’ belies a lack of confidence in his own ability to create and share ideals. Hence he turns against overtly political arguments, and hides them behind the putative objectivity of institutional science. The model of society he imagines is not argued for on its own terms, and does not appeal for the assent of those that would be governed by it for authority. He simply can’t make a popular argument for his political idea, and so turns to ‘science’ to identify the necessity of such a programme — i.e. the crisis — and to identify reasons why conventional democratic processes cannot realise it — i.e. insufficiently developed ‘neural circuits’ and evolutionary psychology. Thus he reinvents ancient and medieval theological political theories. This distrust of the lay public’s mental faculties is not owed to scientific discovery, but to a prejudice in turn owed to his own anxieties about a world he has no control over. This is an anxiety that troubles those who already belong to a political class, but who feel its influence ebbing away as faith in it and its institutions diminishes. They mistake their own demise for the end of the world. This is what is prior to ‘science’ in arguments such as Mooney’s. It is ideological. It is partisan, though it is incoherent. And it has nothing at all to do with the quality of ‘neural circuits’.